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Child Marriage: The Politics, the Culture Explored in Tall As the Baobab

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Grand comme le Baobab: On Letting the Subject Deliver the Message
child marriage tall as the baobab grand comme le baobab

Coumba (left) and her little sister Debo (right) are the main characters in Tall As the Baobab, the based-on-a-true-story fictional account of a family torn between traditional and not so traditional solutions to ensure their survival.

Photo courtesy of Tall As the Baobab / Grand comme le Baobab
To many a Westerner, child marriage seems outrageous. Unacceptable. A clear cut moral, ethical no no. The United Nations refers to it as a fundamental human rights violation. And just yesterday came word via The Telegraph that girls being wed before the age of 10 in Iran have doubled in the span of a year.

But in other parts of the world, the issue of child marriage is not that cut and dry.

In the bigger picture of Sinthiou Mbadane, a small cluster of villages in Senegal located over 80 km southeast of capital city Dakar and 7 km away from the closest city, M'Bour, marrying off girls sometimes as young as age 8 is tradition, culture, it's a way of life that's persisted for generations, often a necessity to counter the sting of extreme poverty.

Twenty-four-year-old New York filmmaker Jemery Teicher captured the essence of the practice in what I consider a remarkable film on the subject, Grand comme le Baobab, French for Tall as the Baobab Tree, a feature length fiction based on true events surrounding child marriage played out by actors who aren't actually actors. Rather, they're villagers from Sinthiou Mbadane who, in the words of Teicher, “are on the absolute cusp of a new era ... you have schools becoming a part of their lives for the first time in history.”

And those schools are changing the way some of the village youth view forced child marriage, notably Dior Ka, the lead character in and inspiration for Tall as the Baobab Tree. Teicher discovered her in his previous work, This Is Us, a 2011 student Academy Award nominated documentary featuring the very same villagers filming themselves living their everyday lives. It was an opportunity to share their culture and lifestyle through their eyes, as opposed to the usual Western-influenced filters. The first child in her family to go to school, Ka made a short film sharing her belief that if girls were offered the choice, they would choose an education over early marriage.

With the Montreal World Film Festival hosting Tall as the Baobab Tree's international English premiere on August 28, 2012, a film in competition in the First Films World category, I had a chance to talk with Teicher about what went in to avoiding the usual stereotypes and/or unintended sanctimony often associated with Africa-related issues presented the big (and small) screen. Notwithstanding how he managed to direct a group of inexperienced rookies to perform so convincingly, how did Teicher win over the exceptionally conservative Fulani tribe enough to let the rest of the world peek inside their homes in the first place? How did the then 23-year-old persuade the Fulani to give viewers a chance to understand them, to relate to them, and to watch them, albeit in the context of fiction, air out what amounts to a very personal cultural debate within their village, a historical turning point, one that, contrary to westernized belief, is far more complex than meets the eye.

Next: Real Life Through the Lens of Fiction

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